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Q&A: Major General Mel Spiese of Rancho Santa Fe weighs in on 2015 defense budget cuts

Major General Melvin G. Spiese at home.  Photo/ Jeanne McKinney
Major General Melvin G. Spiese at home. Photo/ Jeanne McKinney

By Jeanne McKinney

Rancho Santa Fe resident Major General Melvin G. Spiese understands the business of being a military superpower. Spiese, who recently retired as deputy commanding general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, spent more than 36 years leaving a lasting footprint, labeled “visionary” and “impactful.” He assesses the impact of the re-alignment and downsizing of all U.S. military services announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from the Pentagon on Feb. 24, 2014.

Question: Secretary Hagel stated, “We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” How do you read Sec. Hagel’s statement? Is this indicative of a military in decline?

Maj. Gen. Spiese (MGS): “No, it’s indicative of a proliferation of ever increasing threats. We’ve seen massive proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons now as a consequence of some of the things that have happened in Libya. We could see weapons of mass destruction make their way out of Syria. The Iranians are looking at long-range, anti-ship weapons – we know the Chinese have been working very hard at anti-access, area denial capabilities. As we’ve increased military capability…[our] adversaries have been doing the same thing. We haven’t yet developed all the weapons and capabilities and systems to put ourselves back in front in every respect.”

Question: On March 01, 2013, steep and abrupt automatic spending cuts were imposed on DOD under the mechanism of sequestration. This amounted to $37 billion in more cuts. Can you explain how sequestration targets our military and redefines our ability to maintain dominance?

MGS: “We saw sequestration hit at a time we were trying to manage a reduction in the budget anyway. We simply weren’t able to plan for it. There are certain things in the budget that are just impossible to work around and it took a lot of latitude and flexibility away from our leaders to manage things. For example, we have to pay manpower bills, period. These unforeseen reductions come from what are referred to as hard currency accounts…and those happen to be typically readiness accounts.”
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Question: In your Marine Corps tenure, how have defense spending cuts reduced or enhanced the success of military operations?

MGS: “Generally speaking, those [operations] have been funded OK because those are the people who are out on the line. What ends up happening, is everybody behind that suffers and that’s where we start getting [decreased] ability to train – even to maintain our manning levels inside the services.”

Question: Secretary Hagel said, “In the short term, the only way to implement sequestration is to sharply reduce spending on readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force, one that is not ready, one that is not capable of fulfilling assigned missions.”

MGS: “That’s a very accurate assessment.”

Question: In what ways will a sharp reduction in readiness and modernization affect our ability to project U.S. power

?

MGS: “We’re going to be pushed to the point where the focus of readiness is going to be on units that are in the cycle to deploy – carrier battle groups, units that rotate overseas, and then some who are designated as contingency forces and [then] everything else starts carving out. Other things start happening as well. We can’t maintain equipment, aircraft, and ships. So everything [goes] to those things that are forward deployed or on call [leaving] a huge gap for the next tier of capabilities.”

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Question: DOD recommendations favor “a smaller and more capable force.” How can smaller equate to more capable based on our diverse range of threats and missions?

MGS: “The capability of the force now is so great. Now, when a plane takes off – it’s how many targets can a single sortie attack? We can dial it in into every bomb that comes off the airplane. We have to keep pushing the envelope on technology and capabilities in our systems and as we do that, certainly you can make an argument that smaller forces can do more because they can see more, move quicker, and touch more. But one airplane can only be in one place at a time. You’re going to hit this balance point that size does matter.”

Question: Secretary Hagel says sequestration level cuts will reduce large combatant surface ships in the Navy and halt expansion plans for smaller littoral combat ships. Where does that leave the U.S. Navy as a capable and lethal surface combatant and protector of territories and troops?

MGS: “I worry about ships, maybe more than anything else. We’re a maritime nation and we have to insure that the sea lines are secure. With fewer ships, we simply can’t be present in places where we used to be present – where we had the opportunity to insure peace and stability and open waterways. We certainly need to focus on trying to increase the fleet. It’s one of the few ways we have to be present and influence without having to land an airplane on somebody else’s territory.”

Question: Secretary Hagel states, “We are no longer sizing the force for prolonged stability operations.” The Army will draw down from 520,000 to 450,000, the Marine Corps will drop from 190,000 to 182,000 and the Army National Guard and Reserves will also draw down. What risks are involved with that?

MGS: “I worry about the size of the Army. Ground combat has become very complicated. We’re equipping the forces with far more complex high-tech systems, whether it’s communication systems or weapons — how they integrate on the battlefield. I don’t believe that generating ground combat power overnight is easy. Those days are long gone, because the Infantryman is a weapons system, not just somebody who picks up a rifle and goes forward.”

Question: What happens if things heat up with Russia, Syria, Iran, China or North Korea involving the U.S.?

MGS: “There aren’t a whole lot of scenarios we can come up with where the United States would commit itself to a major war. Iraq and Afghanistan, especially during the surges, took everything we had out of the ground forces and a heck of a lot out of our air forces. That’s what we’re living with today and has nothing to do with sequestration. The problem of the budget going forward is recovery from this [in] all the services.”

Question: Are Americans and their safety against attack caught in the crosshairs of political budget wars?

MGS: “The security of the nation isn’t at risk, but certainly aspects of our livelihoods and our quality of life could be at risk if we see adversaries become more powerful and start restricting.”

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